Can Ministry and Academics be Compatible? Addressing Objections to Christian Higher Education
There’s a diversity of opinion among Christian believers in regard to the value of academic institutions and academic study for the person who wants to be completely committed to the life God calls them to. Does the kind of education to be offered at SEU-Celebration hinder or help one’s effectiveness for the kingdom of God?
Some would say, “Of course it helps!” I grew up in such an environment, where high-quality higher education was highly prized. While most thoughtful believers would agree that intellectual knowledge – of Scripture, science, life, etc. – is not alone sufficient for effectiveness in God’s kingdom, there’s a definite value in higher education. This view asserts that without higher education one is missing an essential ingredient of what makes for a more successful life in many dimensions.
Others question higher education for the believer. It’s not hard to understand why. Much of higher education in today’s culture, including much of so-called Christian education, has proven less than effective in preparing students for the real world. And in many situations young people who entered degree programs with a strong faith and growing relationship with God find those spiritual elements of their soul severely shaken or damaged through their “higher education” experiences.
And still others point to such passages of Scripture as 1 John 2:27: “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit-- just as it has taught you, remain in him.” This has sometimes been interpreted as meaning the Holy Spirit, as a Teacher, will infill a believer with all that is necessary, and “human” higher education actually makes one less “fit” for usefulness in God’s kingdom.
Thankfully, our own pastors Joe and Lori Champion do not subscribe to this view. We can be grateful our leaders’ vision of the work God is doing through Celebration Church places a high value on the kind of training SEU-Celebration will provide.
But thoughtfully addressing the questions raised in this discussion is important. Why should the Body of Christ invest the time, energy, and human and material resources in developing a school such as SEU-Celebration? Why should both young and mature students seriously and prayerfully consider investing their time and resources in the education to be offered here?
Let me offer several observations in response.
1. World view makes a difference.
Our world becomes more complicated every day. The rate at which knowledge is doubling continues to rapidly increase. Every human being is faced with looking at this ever-increasing avalanche through a lens. That lens – one’s worldview – affects almost everything in life, including how one chooses what information to pay attention to, the meaning one gives to that information, and how one uses that knowledge to interact with and impact one’s surroundings.
In our culture, science has gained a status almost comparable to deity. From my own field of scientific medicine, debates around issues such as end-of-life care, contraception, stem-cell research, advanced reproductive technologies, and other issues make clear that one’s world-view greatly impacts how one interprets data. Bias is frowned upon in scientific research, but every researcher is only one person (or a group of persons) with their own worldview that informs the questions they ask, the data they look for, the assumptions they make, and their interpretations at every step along the way.
Even the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine understands that “Science is not the only way of knowing and understanding.”
One’s worldview is informed by early experiences, surrounding culture, and deeply-held beliefs, among other things. One’s worldview can be narrow or broad, secular or faith-based, informed or closed-minded. As believers, we can hopefully agree that our worldview should, indeed must, have Scripture as its foundation and structure. Simply claiming to be a Christian does not automatically mean one has a Scripturally-sound worldview.
A higher education done well can equip students to grapple with the issues they will most certainly face both now and in the future from a faith-informed worldview. This is far from indoctrination. A higher education such as at SEU-Celebration will give the student the opportunity to address critical issues of justice, ethics, morality, science, business, and faith in an environment where Scripture informs one’s worldview. Addressing these issues in an environment where faculty and other students have and are wrestling with these issues in a way that holds both faith and intellectual honesty as important will help the student develop healthy habits of integrated thinking for the future.
Not every class at SEU-Celebration will draw directly from the Bible as a textbook. Not every course will deal with theological issues at all. But what SEU-Celebration will do is give students the environment to grow, grapple, and graduate from a field fertilized with Christian faith, and as such to have their enlarging worldview incorporate their own well-examined faith.
2. God is a God of excellence.
In every one of His dealings with human beings it is abundantly clear that God is a God of excellence. And He expects the same of His children. His instructions to Moses about the building of the tabernacle, the conduct of the priests, the handling of sacrifices, etc. made clear that God expects the best (Exodus 25-40, Leviticus 1-9). In the parable of the talents Jesus made clear that God expects His children to develop, grow, invest, become, produce; He expects our best (Matthew 25:14-30).
When it comes to church work and matters of faith, some act as though giving God leftovers is enough – leftovers of time, of finances, of energy, of effort. And then they are confused when they don’t experience the best life they understand God is offering. The Old Testament is full of stories where half-hearted obedience, defective sacrifices, or paying attention to only some of God’s requirements results in sad or disastrous consequences. And Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Although this certainly applies to what God expects of us morally, it applies to everything we do. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). We are finite human beings, and God knows that; this is not about perfectionism. We cannot save ourselves! But God does expect that we give Him our best, our first, our excellence in anything we do.
Psychologically, this principle has been demonstrated in many ways. When facing challenges, people experience the best outcomes when they invest deeply of themselves in cooperating with God. This has been called “collaborative religious coping.” Our skin in the game affects the outcome. Our personal, social, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development are not automatic; our deep investment is necessary. And God expects nothing less of us.
SEU-Celebration is a place where that kind of excellence is modeled, encouraged, facilitated, and expected. The faculty and staff working to bring this school to reality have invested deeply in their own development, and are investing deeply in the development of this school. Students will be expected to do the same. No mail-order diplomas or certificates here. For students’ future, the marketplace demands excellence, and this will be a place where students can grow in their capacity to offer such.
While high standards of instruction are a given, this principle will be extended to all areas of a student’s development. Character growth and emotional maturity will be fostered through mentoring. Broader and deeper understanding of real-life workplaces will be fostered through connecting students with industry experts. This is much more than gaining knowledge; it’s building graduates to impact a culture.
Offering God half-prepared service is not acceptable, whether in church work or as a believer in the marketplace at large. The training to be offered through SEU-Celebration will prepare the student to display God’s kind of excellence in all things.
3. Habits of learning can be long-lasting.
Knowledge is important but cheap. Today’s online browsers like Google have guaranteed that. But experience and wisdom are anything but cheap. When you spend money for yourself or your child to be a student at SEU-Celebration you are not paying for knowledge. Instead, you are investing in a whole-person development process that will continue far beyond graduation. One of the most important things a student will carry beyond their time at SEU-Celebration is the thought processes they develop.
Thought habits, in particular habits of learning, can last for the rest of a student’s life. Those habits include asking appropriate questions, seeking knowledge, evaluating the source of that knowledge, critical thinking, forming opinions, substantiating those opinions with data, defending those opinions when necessary, evaluating conclusions in light of input from others, assessing opinions and conclusions in light of Christian faith, and much more.
The development of such thought habits does not only impact future thinking; it affects all areas of one’s effectiveness. “Efforts to separate the spiritual, psychological, and physical aspects of persons inevitably result in the trivialization of each.” Such thought habits will impact one’s development in other dimensions and one’s personal effectiveness in all areas of life.
It’s one thing to intentionally develop thought habits on one’s own. It’s an entirely different – and higher – type of learning to be in an environment where such thought habits are practiced and encouraged. Faculty at SEU-Celebration are being selected not only for their academic background or fund of knowledge, but for their ability to demonstrate and encourage such thinking in others. Such thinking is not a specific course of study; it’s one of the most important outcomes of investing in and spending time in an environment where others are doing such thinking.
And for the believer, perhaps one of the most important aspects of this outcome from the type of training SEU-Celebration will provide is that such habits of learning are not only faith-friendly; they encourage deeper faith.
Back to our original question; does the kind of education to be offered at SEU-Celebration hinder or help one’s effectiveness for the kingdom of God? Based on these observations, it’s clear that this kind of education can significantly increase one’s effectiveness not only in the workplace, but also for the kingdom of God.
 Kenneth Pargament et al, “Religion and the Problem-Solving Process: Three Styles of Coping,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 27, no. 1 (1988).
 D.G. Benner, Care of Souls (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), p. 62.